Robot 6

Women of Action | Black Canary and the Birds of Prey

New 52 Birds of Prey

I once attended a writing workshop by a popular, big-name comics writer in the 1990s who revealed a Dirty Secret that’s haunted me ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but he admitted that writers of corporate-owned superheroes rely heavily on fans’ pre-existing attachment to those characters. Obviously, the extent to which he was able to speak for his peers is questionable, but the implication was that he felt he could sneak sloppy work by readers, confident that their love for the characters would keep them buying the comics anyway.

Please please please don’t think that I’m accusing Duane Swierczynski of that. I have no reason to think that he’s doing anything less than his best work. It’s just that that Dirty Secret occasionally pops back into my head as I’m reading comics I’m not enjoying about characters that I like. And the New 52 Birds of Prey is one of those comics.

I discovered Black Canary through Green Arrow. I’ve been a Robin Hood fan my whole life, so it was an easy jump to digging Green Arrow, but I admit that I didn’t care for Black Canary at first. My intro to these characters was all post-Mike Grell, and all I knew about Canary was that – early in Grell’s Green Arrow run – she accused Green Arrow of cheating on her and left him. At the time I was learning about this history, there was a huge debate among Green Arrow fans about how justified Black Canary’s complaints were. But either way, Green Arrow’s reputation as a philanderer stuck. Eventually, it became apparent to me that – whether or not he’d been that way before – Green Arrow’s writers now considered commitment-phobia and infidelity to be important parts of his character. I began to lose interest in him and gave Black Canary a second look instead. I checked out Birds of Prey and dug it.

Gail Simone's first issue on Birds of Prey

It wasn’t until Gail Simone began writing the series that I actually fell in love with Black Canary, though. Simone was obviously gaga over the character and her enthusiasm was infectious. She wrote the Last Black Canary Hostage Story and turned the character into an ass-kicking heroine worthy of leading the Justice League. Unfortunately, Black Canary was a victim of her own success.

She became leader of the Justice League in Brad Meltzer’s relaunch of Justice League of America, but she wasn’t written as an effective one. The new series lacked focus, which made the team – and, by extension, Black Canary as its leader – seem sloppy and distracted too. It was about that same time that she left Birds of Prey to marry and co-star in her own series with Green Arrow. That went pretty well for a while, especially with Cliff Chiang drawing the first six issues, but I also loved the focus on the extended Green Arrow “family.” Then Andrew Kreisberg took over as writer and immediately got rid of the supporting cast, introduced major marital problems, and had Black Canary doing stupid crap like creating a supervillain by accidentally ruining a poor sap’s life through the careless, amateurish use of her sonic scream. Between that and Justice League, I remembered that just because I like a character, it doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy every story about her.

I say all that to say this about Duane Swierczynski’s work: he’s not ruining Black Canary. I love that he has her leading the Birds of Prey now that Barabara Gordon is starring in Batgirl. I also love the moral complexity he’s given her and new character Starling. The full details haven’t been revealed yet, but Black Canary is wanted for murder and I am A-Okay with that. Whether she killed someone or not (she mentions wanting to clear her name, so probably not), I have enough trust that — if I were to stick with the series — I’d be on her side when all is made clear. In the meantime, I love that she’s willing to get herself dirty while doing this job.

Black Canary and Batgirl

I also like the inclusion of Katana (a character I’ve never cared about, but whom Swierczynski plays with just the right amount of doubt concerning her sanity) and Poison Ivy (her dialogue is simultaneously creepy and seductive, as it should be). There’s a lot that the new Birds of Prey is doing right, including Jesus Saiz’s art. What it isn’t doing right though is making me care about any of it.

That’s what reminds me of that Dirty Secret from earlier. It’s not that I think Swierczynski isn’t trying; he’s writing a perfectly acceptable superhero story and I wouldn’t in a million years compare it to what I saw happen with Meltzer or Kreisberg’s times with Black Canary. But there’s no weight to it. Sure, lives are at stake and at one point one of them is even Black Canary’s, but the only reason that the Birds of Prey seem to be engaging the bad guys that they’ve spent six issues fighting so far (with still no resolution) is because those are bad guys and engaging them is what good guys do. The villain Choke is a unique and interesting concept, but it feels like he or she was the initial idea and the heroes are incidental. Anyone could be fighting this bad guy and you’d have roughly the same story.

There’s nothing personal in it, and that’s hard to swallow after experiencing Batgirl and Batwoman; two series that are all about the personal stakes their main characters have in the stories they’re telling. Following that, “perfectly acceptable” isn’t good enough. It used to be. There was a time when the principle of the Dirty Secret would’ve worked on me and I would have just kept buying Birds of Prey because I like the characters and it wasn’t actively offensive. But when there are truly great series for me to read instead, that time is over.

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Comments

26 Comments

Welp, I strongly disagree with the premise that every villain needs to have something specific to do with the protagonists in any obvious, direct way. In fact, those types of reveals stretch credability too far for me, especially when they come in succession. One of the main problems I have with the current Flash arc is that the villain just HAPPENS to be one of Barry’s old friends — REALLY? Both of them just happened to get super powers, totally separately? Wow, THAT seems like a coincidence!

Choke represents an IDEOLOGICAL opposition to the Birds of Prey, who are very much in the pursuit – and worship of – freedom. The whole conceit of this arc is that they’re on the run from all authority figures, they tend to despise authority figures or really anything that could bring them in and under control. They prefer to act as individuals, and indeed are VIBRANTLY individuals. That is the main selling point of the book, I’d argue — that they all feel so distinct and individual. And so that makes Choke, who subverts individuality and turns them into indeed faceless, unknowing pawns, a perfect foil.

The villain is FURTHER appropriate given the Birds’ status as fugitives on the run, as they could literally be anyone, anywhere.

It works in a subtextual context, and it works really nicely. I’d hate for it to be revealed that Choke was, like, Black Canary’s long lost cousin twice removed.

I don’t think that the writer of this article is saying that a villain has to have a personal connection to the hero a la “every one of Spider-Man’s rogues”, but that the story itself unfolds in a way that the heroes feel incidental.

To actually use Spider-man as an example, in the classic story where he fought the Juggernaut, here was an example where there was no personal connection between the two, but it’s seen as one of the best Spider-Man stories because it was written *about* Peter Parker as a person. It could have been almost any villain that outclassed Spider-Man in that story, but there’s no doubt the story would not have felt at all the same had Juggernaut been fighting another hero.

Dekko, you’re right that I’m not advocating for a personal connection to the villain himself; just to the story. There need to be stakes: like Batgirl’s survivor guilt or Batwoman’s fear about not being able to protect the people she loves. Their villains represent those conflicts in a way that I didn’t get with Birds of Prey.

Deniz, you bring up an interesting point about the Birds’ opposition to authority and Choke’s representing totalitarian authority. I think that’s valid and it makes me like the series a little more. But while Swierczynski tells us that the Birds have a problem with authority, he never really lets us feel it. It would be more powerful if we could see how that conflict is affecting their lives instead of Batgirl’s just showing up every once in a while and sending conflicting messages about whether or not she supports the team.

Fair enough, but I’d argue that we ARE getting exploration into the characters themselves, even if it isn’t done in any obvious way. I already feel that I understand very strongly the loyalty felt between Starling and Dinah, for instance. I feel that I understand that Dinah is all business, Starling all pleasure. I understand that they’re both extremely damaged, in secret ways. That Katana is deadly, focused, and quite probably insane.

No, there are no great character bonds that are broken here, no great personal revelations that they come to, but this is the introductory arc — for any of those things to mean anything, there needs to be some investment in the characters, and I’d say I’ve become invested in them, and the story.

I find it interesting that you’re comparing this title to Batgirl, because I find this title leaps and BOUNDS superior to the overwrought, hamfisted attempts seen in Batgirl. To the point that I was totally unable to get past the second issue of that title – literally had to put it down – because Simone was very obviously trying TOO hard.

And that’s coming from someone who LOVED Villains United/Secret Six and quite enjoyed her earlier Birds of Prey run.

It might just come down to different tastes, but I do agree wholeheartedly that the character work in Birds of Prey is truly great. Maybe the rest of what I’m looking for is coming; I’m just impatient after six issues.

Learning that you don’t have to read every story your favorite character stars in is an important lesson for all fans, and ultimately it makes for a better experience with the character. Read the good stuff, skip the bad.

This review has so many caveats that it’s hard to tell if the critic actually dislikes anything about it. May takes aplogetics to new heights here.

As for me, I’m not quite as squeamish as May. I don’t like this version of BoP at all. It’s boring, plodding and I don’t care about any of these characters like I once did. And I’m not getting the appeal of Saiz at all. This guy has such a severe case of “Same Face” that is so severe that even Katana’s mask is indistinguishable from any of the other characters. I’m glad this series is plummeting on the charts. Perhaps this means we’ll get a new, better creative team that can give us something interesting and readable.

@David Bird
Exactly. To paraphrase Jay Sherman: “If the comic stinks, just don’t read it.”

I agree with this post 101% There is not enough heart in what Duane writes, especially with Black Canary he doesn’t understand her and as a result she come’s off stiff and artificial almost like she’s an android. However, this is not the case with Starling, she feels real although a little bit cliché and that is because she’s the writers creation and in some way an extension of himself in DC’s universe.

Therefore, I completely agree with this post we have a decent Birds of Prey story here but Duane S. better inject some TLC immediately because we need to start caring about these ladies, with an exception to Starling these women feel like androids and their costumes are not helping.

Deniz

I agree with you on the Batgirl title. I dropped after second one. I do flip through it hoping that something will peak my interest. So far no.

I agree with what the reviewer is saying. The story is not bad but its not good. Its… well boring. I think the story about Canary and being wanted for murder is far more interesting then what we are being given.

People are fooling themselves if they thought the Simone BoP was good.

I don’t know. After awhile I get tired of EVERY story having a tie to the hero. I don’t need (or want) a flashback to the hero’s past, showing us some little-known moment that happened in their life which explains why this adventure resonates with them, to get tied to the story. Sometimes it’s nice to have a brand-new story being told. Duane S’s BoP is not the best, but it is pretty good.

I have never read birdS of pray but I do understand the principle of the dirty secret it why I got tricked in to buy My greatest adventures and kept reading Green Arrow until 52 and alot of people suffered alot during The Chuck Austen X Men most of us have a fondness for character we have seen them at there best Duane Swierczynsk’s Cable and there worst Jeph Loeb’s Cable versus the Avengers. Because we have seen them at there best it is hard to give up on character. all it would take is just the right Writer and we are going to have fun reading again anther example Animal Man Grant Morrison and Peter Millagan did some there best work Tom Vetch took over it was hot and cold good and bad but mostly drug out to long the readers who suffered through the poison got rewarded at issue 51 by one the series best writers equal in his own way to Morrison, Jaime Delano the next writer was not a good fit and the series ended we reader who kept following Animal Man were rewarded two many series that were both very good and finally guess what we now have Animal Man as one of the most acclaimed writers of the relaunch do I still follow the the secret anymore sometimes but I will tell you other then to give Ann Nocenti a try on Green Arrow I have stopped a lot of it .

Fair enough, but I must say that I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment. BoP is, quite frankly, my favorite of the New 52 simply BECAUSE it’s not weighed down by some of the things you mentioned. It’s just a straightforward action/mystery title where the main characters are all well-written and have unique voices and motivations for being part of the team. Swierczynski managed to make me actually enjoy Cable for the first time in his 25-year existence, and he’s catapulted the Birds to one of my most anticipated titles every month…I say “kudos Duane!”

Just a shame that Spider Woman,Black Widow,Mockingbird,Ms Marvel,and Jessica Jones could not join the Birds of Prey they would be great additions to the team also, I think Zealot,Savant(wildstorm),Christine Blaze,and Jakita Wagner would make awesome additions too & DC owns them.

I’m someone else who is enjoying the current BoP run, though I’m an issue behind at present. For me, the stakes seem pretty obvious— it’s about the formation and survival of this new team, not necessarily the characters as individuals. In fact, the characters as individuals are in conflict with the Birds of Prey as an entity. How will/can this team survive conflicting personalities, trust issues, and a mind-control villain?

It looks like we’ll get more character spotlight in the coming arcs, including Dinah’s apparently changed New 52 origin.

I was drawn in by the title of your article and left to drown in your sloppy writing. Birds of Prey has many redeeming qualities and you make it seem like just because it has a few kinks it’s no good. I care about the characters. I’m excited to find out about their personal lives. Shoot, I got uber-pissed when I found out my favorite penciller (Jesus Saiz) wouldn’t be on the book anymore. This is one of my favorite books, which doesn’t make it the best, I just don’t think you have enough reasoning to totally condemn it.

“People are fooling themselves if they thought the Simone BoP was good.”

It was pretty good in spots (at least the first go round; I never read her second volume on the book) but, contrary to what the Simone loyalist would say, it was never great. Like what Deniz said about Batgirl, her early work on BoP too often came off like she was trying to hard to tell us how great Canary was rather than just showing us.

SImone is a character writer first and foremost. All of her stories in some way advanced the story of at least one of the Birds. Her run was fantastic!

The current incarnation of the Birds has been spot on so far. Sure it’s a different tone. It’s a different series with some changes to characters but it’s also a NEW Earth, for all intents and purposes.

I will defend Gail’s two runs on the original Birds to the end.

And so far, the same holds true for this current run!!

I agree that there isn’t much depth with the characters yet in this run. Its like a big action blockbuster. All style and no substance. And while I have been enjoying that to an extent, I’m ready for more. Katana is a prime example. This is a great take on the character (slight insanity?) and I am loving the costume now (it has seriously grown on me) but she is barely in the book, and because she doesn’t speak much, that isn’t gonna cut it. At the other 3 get more panel time.

And speaking of Black Canary. It was Chuck Dixon creating this team that made me interested in this character. And Gail Simone continued that great take.

Gail’s BoP was consistantly great.
Dixon got the ball rolling, but if Simone hadn’t picked it up there’s NO WAY it would have lasted over 120 issues.
Nobody can deny she did a brilliant job.

I’d like to see her writing Green Arrow monthly. Then I’d actually be able to read a comic about one of my favourite characters again.

Simone’s first run WAS amazing. But I think the less said about the last series the better. It was just… not good. At all. And I was seriously looking forward to it. Especially with the additions of Hawk and Dove after their appearances in Brightest Day (But don’t get me started on their nu52 series!) I didn’t feel like her writing, and the constant subpar artist changes (nearly every issue!) did not help it! I only really enjoyed 2 issues form the whole run.

You forgot James Robinson when talking about people who ruined the character. He had Dinah dissolve the League in Cry for Justice just because her husband left the team. He also invented a threesome between Hal Jordan, Huntress and Lady Blackhawk. Yeah… my guess is he is not BoP’s biggest fan.

I think Swierczynski’s BOP has two real issues: The first and biggest is that there’s no real connection between the characters and the story. The emotional stakes are low. The second issue, which amplifies the first, is that the initial arc is just too long. I really think DC should have put a hard limit of about four issues on the introductory arcs, just to keep things moving.

I mostly agree. I think “Batgirl” is fantastic. Not without room for improvement, but I do like that Gail has managed to make me want to see how Babs grows as a character. Her return to a title she once held due to a tramatic event, adds weight to her character. I agree that Gail was probably trying a little to hard, but there was an element of I think Batgirl’s appearing in BOP was very wise and I like that she is written as a strong and forceful character here (after all, she is carrying her own title quite well, Canary – nor any of the other BOP players are – so giving credit to a strong character and the character who in reality founded BOP fro m the beginning – gives the book an a good balance).

Anyway, I am enjoying this title more than I thought I would but I can see where there needs to be more intensity to it all – as it can at times very on “ok, this is all well and nice but nothing is making me really particularly interested in what happens next – a must have for a successful book thee days). There are strong hints that once BOP finds its footing, that it will last – hopefully that will occur before any thoughts of cancellation ever come up.

Batwoman is also an excellent book – the art is probably my favorite of the current DC artists and the story telling interesting enough. I like that that writer isn’t afraid to take risks – something both Duane and Gail could do a little more. This fiction folks, you can take some creative liberties.

I will stay with BOP as long as Batgirl is in it. I buiy it in two formats now, but if Batgirl is only going to show up in a couple of panels, I’ll probably scale that back to just the digital ro print versions only.

Looking forward to what comes next for BOP (but not with baited breath – yet!)

:)

I find BoP to be an excellent comic (my second favorite, after Batwoman). The writer shows us how the characters are, instead of telling us, and the relationships between the quite different team members are developing very well. The story is also very intriguing. I don’t think the story has to be too closely linked to the heroes. It might work once in a while, but it is highly unbelievable that every villain a hero encounters means something to him/her, or mirror his/her personnel development, or inner demons, and what not.

I must say I disliked Canary in BoP previous runs, but here, I find her a very interesting character. Starling is my favorite new character,because she is so much fun while having something dark under the surface. Katana and Poison Ivy also add to the team. All in all, this run of BoP is easily my favorite.

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